ISLAMABAD  - The US Agency for International Development (USAID) through the USAID Firms Project is launching a pilot programme to assist date farming and processing in Khairpur and Sukkur districts of Sindh.The programme aims to increase the economic value of local dates by mitigating these constraints and removing bottlenecks in the sector’s value chain, said a statement issued here on Tuesday. The program will benefit 40 to 45 SMEs in date farming from Khairpur and Sukkur through the provision of equipment such as food-grade plastic crates,  boom sprayers and date palm dryers.The project is expected to result in at least a 15 percent increase in sales and a 10 percent increase in production for the supported SMEs with up to a 15 percent increase in jobs.USAID is also providing the three SME date processors with equipment to detect physical contamination, food grade processing tables, small cold storage rooms and assistance for HACCP and ISO certification to address the phytosanitary, food safety and quality requirements of the international market. The project is finalizing cost-share agreements with three date processing SMEs including workforce training, infrastructure, technical assistance for quality certifications and support for international market linkages. USAID is also planning to provide cost-share assistance to establish a commercial cold storage facility. This cold storage will be the first facility in the Khairpur and Sukkur area which is dedicated to dates.Based on the program’s design, partner SMEs are projecting a 10 percent increase in production, generating more than USD 200,000 in incremental income, likely resulting in hundreds of new jobs.It may be recalled that Khairpur and Sukkur are Pakistan’s chief date-producing districts, contributing to around 40 to 45 percent of the country’s date production.Despite Pakistan being the fifth largest producer of dates in the world and having significant export prospects, the country is not capitalizing on its potential and is exporting just over 18 percent of its total date production.Lack of awareness about best farming practices, improper fruit handling techniques, and an absence of developed processing facilities are major constraints inhibiting profitable date production in the country.